This year’s nativity comes from the region of Abruzzo. The 19 ceramic figures, which include the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, the Christ Child, an angel, the three Magi, and many animals, come from a set consisting of 54 pieces made over the course of a decade in the 1960s and 1970s.
The display in St. Peter’s Square was inaugurated together with an almost 100-foot-tall Christmas spruce on Dec. 11, and immediately, two unusual figures in the scene caught the eye of onlookers.
Referring to a helmeted figure with a spear and shield, Rome-based Catholic tour guide Mountain Butorac said “in no way does this horned creature bring me Christmas joy.”
In another tweet, Butorac described the whole nativity scene as looking like “some car parts, kid toys, and an astronaut.”
The soldier-looking statue is a centurion and signifies a “great sinner,” explained Mancini, a teacher at the school where the nativity set was made. He is also vice president of the F.A. Grue Institute of Art, which is located in the town of Castelli in central Italy and also serves as a high school.
He noted that the astronaut was created and added to the collection after the 1969 moon landing, and was included in the pieces sent to the Vatican at the behest of the local bishop, Lorenzo Leuzzi.
Castelli is famous for its ceramics, and the idea for the nativity came from the then director of the art institute, Stefano Mattucci, in 1965. Different teachers and students of the institute worked on the pieces.
The 54-piece set which exists now was completed in 1975. But as early as December 1965, the “Monumental Nativity Scene of Castelli” was exhibited in the town square of Castelli. Five years after that, it was shown at Trajan’s Market in Rome. Later it also made its way to Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Tel Aviv for exhibitions.
Mancini recalled that the work had also received mixed reviews in Castelli, with people saying “it’s ugly, it’s beautiful, it seems to me… it doesn’t seem to me...” He commented: “It doesn’t embarrass us.”
About the reactions to the scene being at the Vatican, he said, “I do not know which criticism to answer, the school has allowed the exhibition of one of its historical artifacts.” He also pointed out that it was not made by artisans but by a school.
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“It is rich in symbols and signifiers that offer a non-traditional reading of the nativity scene,” he explained.
But people look to the Vatican “for the tradition of beauty,” said Lev, who lives in Rome and teaches at Duquesne University. “We keep beautiful things in there so that no matter how awful your life is, you can walk into St. Peter’s and that’s yours, that’s part of who you are, and it reflects who you are and the glory of who you are,” she told the National Catholic Register.
“I don’t understand why we’d turn our back on that,” she added. “It seems to be part of this strange, modern loathing and rejection of our traditions.”
The Vatican department responsible for organizing the nativity each year is the Governorate of Vatican City State. It said in a press release that the artwork was influenced by ancient Greek, Egyptian and Sumerian sculpture.
The Governorate of the Vatican City State did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.